A potential six-point belter and de facto elimination match could be in the offering Saturday night as the Columbus Crew and Chicago Fire look to bolster their flagging playoff chances at the others’ expense.
The Fire (8-9-12) enter this match in 10th place in the Eastern Conference on 33 points, three better than the Crew (8-6-15), and both clubs have five matches remaining. Chicago is four points behind Montreal for the seventh and final playoff spot, but the two teams the Fire must overtake between themselves and the Impact – Toronto FC and Orlando City – have matches in hand.
And that does not address the elephant in the room when it comes to the Fire – their awful road form. Chicago dropped to 1-6-20 in its last 27 road matches dating to last season with a 2-1 defeat at New England last Saturday. Francisco Calvo headed home Nico Gaitan’s free kick in the 41st minute to level the match, but his turnover led to a late goal by New England’s Gustavo Bou from beyond the penalty area in the 86th minute to leave the Fire empty-handed.
“It is what it is … We need to prepare for our next games,” Fire midfielder Nemanja Nikolic told ProSoccer USA. “We are still in it – but control is not in our hand – which is not good, but we will try to take the most from our next five games.”
It is unknown if central midfielder Bastian Schweinsteiger will miss a second straight match as he and his wife, tennis star Ana Ivanovic, are preparing for the couple’s second child. Michael Azira started in Schweinsteiger’s place against the Revolution, but fellow midfielder Aleksandar Katai will be available after serving a two-match ban for violent conduct and his red card given against Portland on Aug. 14.
Columbus maintained its slim playoff hopes with a 3-1 victory in the second “Hell Is Real” derby at intrastate rival FC Cincinnati on Sunday. The win snapped a four-match winless run for the Crew as they also improved to 3-4-1 in their last eight matches.
Gyasi Zardes had a brace in an 11-minute span of the first half and Luis Diaz added the third in first-half stoppage time as Columbus took four of six points from the first-year club in what quickly became one of the league’s more boisterous derbies.
“That first half was the best half of the year, and I thought it was as close to the vision of how we want to play moving forward as we’ve had all season long,” Crew coach Caleb Porter said. “We were aggressive, we pressed from the opening whistle. We got on the ball when it was on to break and be ruthless in transition, we were. When it was time to keep the ball, we did.”
Zardes, who was recalled to the U.S. national team for the upcoming international window, has scored five of his 11 goals in the last seven matches. That burst started with a goal in Columbus’ 2-2 draw at Chicago on July 17 in which the Crew snatched a late point through Romario Williams’ equalizer in the 90th minute.
Djordje Mihailovic and C.J. Sapong twice staked Chicago to leads in that contest, but Columbus has been a house of horrors for the Fire. They carry a nine-match winless streak (0-3-6) there into this match since recording a 2-1 victory in 2013.
(Gyasi Zardes photo courtesy Kelley L. Cox/USA TODAY Sports)